Do you think all Port wines are the same? Have you had Port before and found it to be a completely different experience on different occasions? Well, by their very nature, and not solely because of their brand, not all Ports are equal.
First things first. Port is a unique, trademark designated product from a specific place of origin. Port is short for Porto, or Portugal. Port wine comes from a select and historic area called the Douro River valley about 100km upstream from the coastal city of Porto (or Oporto if you’re from Britain) in Portugal. See my post on location this past summer for a description of the region. One can still find wines called Port from places like Australia and it used to be more common from other places as well, like California. But as wine is intrinsically very specific to place of origin, it was decided a number of years ago to protect this dignity by prohibiting the use of names like Port and Champagne and Bordeaux outside of those particular regions. Most countries developed mutually beneficial arrangements with Portugal, France and other name/place pioneers to protect their own brand identities except for some, like Australia.
Anyway, the point is that real Port comes from Portugal. Otherwise, outside of place/name particularities, this type of wine would be called fortified wine, dessert wine, or in slang, a sticky (for the sweet and syrupy nature).
There are two main types of Port: Ruby and Tawny. They are the same wine at their initial creation – they come from the same places, from the same grapes and the finished products are of roughly the same alcohol – 20% usually, but that’s it.
The styles divide once the finished wines are produced – that is, after the grapes are harvested, the juice is fermented and the extra punch of grape spirit alcohol is added (Ports are considered ‘fortified,’ are 20% alcohol and are sweet because additional alcohol in the form of distilled grape spirit is added which shuts down fermentation in the wine making process, leaving a bit of sugar behind).
Ports destined to become Tawnies are moved to giant oak casks – some thousands of litres in volume – to age for years. Rubies are bottled almost immediately, certainly within a year.
To see a Ruby and a Tawny Port side by side, you’ll notice that one is darker and more red in colour, while the other is lighter and browner. Their names give away which is which. See the picture below.
Tawny Ports earn their colour from age and contact with air. As a red wine ages in an oak barrel and comes into contact with air (through pores in the wood) it loses its red colour. The colour changes from brick, to mahogany, to tawny. Ruby Ports on the other hand receive almost no air contact, thus preserving their rich garnet or deep red colour.
This difference in post-winemaking handling affects flavours too. Ruby Ports are more typical of a rich red wine: full of fruit (typically blackberry, black currant, plum and fig) as well as licorice, perhaps menthol or eucalyptus, tobacco, or even mineral flavours. Tawny Ports are quite different and offer flavours indicative of its age and oxidization. Predominantly, you’ll notice nuts, raisins, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, caramel and butterscotch with perhaps some other exotic herbs or spices.
You’d pair these with different foods too – though they are equally enjoyable on their own. Being sweet, Ports are generally best with similarly sweet foods, ie: dessert.
Ruby Ports pair best with chocolate and complimentary fruit preserves. Think rich dark chocolate cake or ganache with blueberry preserve. Also, many people like Ruby Ports with blue cheese, though I can’t speak from experience as I’m not a blue cheese fan myself.
Tawny Ports are best with more savoury or nutty desserts – perhaps just nuts themselves, or my favourite (a classic pairing), creme brulee. Even something simple like salted popcorn is quite indulgent and tasty.
The divergence of these two styles of Ports continues in complexity, rarity and expense. Simple Ruby and Tawny Ports, often labeled only as such, begin at about $20. Ruby Ports then go:
Reserve Port (~$23)
Late Bottled Vintage – with vintage = 2005, 2006… (~$26)
Non-Classic Vintage – made in a year that was good but not great (~$60-$70)
Classic Vintage – made in select years, usually 3 per decade (~$80-$130)
Tawny Ports go:
10 year Tawny – blended from wines of multiple ages, averaging 10 years old, some older, some younger (~$25)
20 year Tawny – average age 20 years old (~$60)
30 year Tawny – average age 30 years old, you get the idea (~$100)
40 year Tawny (~$160 – $180)
Port is a classic drink whose history began back in the 1600’s when England sought to satisfy its thirst for wine from somewhere other than France, with whom they were often at war. Portugal offered a solution but the wines couldn’t remain unspoiled during the long voyage. Thus, in an act of miraculous conception brandy was added. Along with keeping the wine relatively fresh, surely the British didn’t mind the extra dose of alcohol either. Eventually most of the Port production became British-owned. That’s why names like Taylor Fladgate, founded in 1692, exist in the Port world.
Most Port houses maintain strong connections to their British history and can easily trace their lineage back to the 1600’s. Many feature descendants of their original families and some are still family owned. It is in part this great history that makes wine so interesting, and opening each bottle so wonderful.